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First Agricultural Workshop in Texas for Veterans is a Success

Planning and Record Keeping are Key to Success for Producers

story by Melissa Blair

Each person that came through the doors of the meeting room had their own reasons for seeking information about starting a farm or ranch. One veteran came to learn how he could acquire land and equipment to start organic production to provide a home and a living for his family. Another came seeking an outlet to heal the trauma and scars from battle.

Whatever their reason, more than 70 attended "A Transformational Journey: From Battleground to Breaking Ground," held in Seguin in July. This first agricultural workshop in Texas targeted to veterans to provide them the resources and contacts for starting their own farm or ranching operation.

The workshop was a partnership of the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Texas AgrAbility, Texas AgriLife Extension Service, and other organizations that offer assistance for production agriculture.

For speaker Chris Barnes, who has served 10 years in the military including the Reserves and two tours in the U.S. Army, agriculture is a family legacy that he wants to pass onto his children like his grandfather did with him.

"I have been around farming all my life; my grandfather got me started farming when I was five years old," said Barnes. "His love of the farm eventually turned into my love of the farm."

At age 19, Barnes took over the note on 54 acres of his grandfather's land with the help of a Texas Veterans Land Board loan. Barnes has increased his holdings to 300 acres for an intensive grazing operation to rotate cattle through paddocks to focus grazing on one parcel for a specific time to allow grasses to recover. This can even provide forage for hay during drought. Barnes reminded everyone if they are in cattle, they are grass farmers first and ranchers second. NRCS helped Barnes with technical and financial assistance for clearing brush, grass planting, installing permanent cross fencing, pond placement and water lines for cattle, and irrigation in the future for forage and hay production.

No matter where Barnes is serving, his heart is at the ranch. His love for the land showed as he told attendees that all the headaches and heartaches are worth it at the end of the day when you can look back at what you have done and see your accomplishments on your own piece of land.

For presenters Tom and Sue Hughes, who own and operate a small grass-fed beef and hay operation in Hood County, it was the desire to establish permanent roots on a farm, unlike most military families who move constantly. Tom, who grew up on a farm in Bosque County introduced farming to his wife, Sue, who had grown up in rural and suburban New York until she moved to Texas after high school. After serving 23 years in the Army Reserves, Tom retired in 2011, but he had both shoulders damaged and other health conditions that left him classified as 70 percent disabled. He provided suggestions on how to make adaptations for disabilities by acquiring used equipment to help with jobs like putting in posts, moving hay, and other farm chores. Tom also talked about training others to help on the ranch but warned about monitoring help to do it right the first time and to protect your investment. The Hughes agreed the ranch is hard work but it definitely has it rewards.

"People buy land with plans to build on it and retire some day, and what do they want the first time they pay taxes?" said Tom Hughes on suggestions for acquiring land. "Everybody wants an agricultural exemption but they don't want to work for it and most times don't know how. People want to pay low taxes, and we have as much land was we want to rent for our grass-fed operation, but it's a matter of what we can manage."

Both Barnes and the Hughes emphasized planning and record-keeping is the key to success and how the NRCS and the Texas Department of Agriculture's (TDA) Young Farmer Grant program helped them improve their operations. Barnes and the Hughes both encouraged the veterans to seek out programs and agencies to help them accomplish their agricultural goals.

Veterans learned about Texas AgrAbility, a USDA-grant funded program that provides education and resources to help keep Texas agricultural producers, their family members, and employees, who have chronic health conditions and/or a disability, stay in production agriculture.

One of the services AgrAbility provides is to evaluate a producer's health condition, their farm/ranch equipment, and other variables to make recommendations that would improve the agricultural producer's ability to continue in their occupation to their fullest ability. Attendees were able to visit with farmer Craig Hillhouse who had a hip bone removed due to cancer treatment, and who worked with Texas AgrAbility to modify his tractor and an occupational therapist to help him get back in his tractor and to work in the field.

Mike Morris, Southwest Regional Office Director for the newly opened National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) in San Antonio, shared over lunch about his and his agency's work on sustainable agriculture, local food, renewable energy, and how they can assist in making the roller coaster ride of getting into agriculture a little smoother. Most of Morris' projects have involved working with farmers, ranchers, and communities on using water and energy more efficiently, and his recent projects have included irrigation efficiency, solar energy, and small-scale biofuels.

The afternoon panel discussion was an overview of agency's services including technical and financial assistance, benefits, and programs that the veterans could utilize free of charge. The panel featured Bill Finch, Guadalupe/Comal County NRCS District Conservationist; Michael West, Finance Programs Coordinator with TDA; Raecene Randall, Farm Loan Manager with the USDA-Farm Service Agency (FSA); Lauren Brannen, Veteran Representative with the Vocation Rehabilitation Division of the Veteran's Administration; and Carlos Munoz, Division of Blind Services with the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS-DBS).

The day began and wrapped up with Dr. Greg Clary, Professor and Extension Management Economist at Texas A&M University and Chairman of the Texas Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. He gave the veterans suggestions on how to use the business profile and the farming and business skills assessment forms in their notebooks to help them evaluate their knowledge, skills, experience, goals and objectives, and the resources they have to generate business revenue. Clary, who specializes in rural and agriculture business planning and development, educated attendees how to develop a venture plan, opportunities to look at for rural businesses, and gave real life examples of how landowners incorporated their knowledge, skills, and their resources to develop their enterprise and also expand or diversify it down the road.

"Planning is good when you do it ahead of time, before you have alot money and time sunk into something," said Clary. "So that you have a roadmap to guide the decisions you are going to make as you go through your business development and help you determine if getting into agriculture or business is right for you."

The survey turned in by attendees after the workshop showed a significant improvement in their knowledge of what they knew about the resources prior to the workshop. Also, almost everyone said they anticipated to benefit economically as a direct result of what they learned at the workshop.

Participants in the veteran agriculture workshop visit with Dr. Douglas Kingman (left). Chris and Holly Barnes of Bastrop County (left) and Sue and Tom Hughes of Hood County

Participants in the veteran agricultural workshop visit with Dr. Douglas Kingman, Sam Houston State University (left) and Farm Assessment Coordinator with Texas AgrAbility, and farmer Craig Hillhouse (right in wheelchair). Kingman worked through the Texas AgrAbility Program to assess Hillhouse needs and worked with his students to modify Hillhouse's tractor so the farmer could return to his work in the field.

Chris and Holly Barnes of Bastrop County and Sue and Tom Hughes of Hood County are cooperators with the USDA-NRCS on their farms. Chris and Sue were also recipients of the Texas Department of Agriculture's Young Farmer Grant program.

Feedback on the workshop survey from attendees was that they were overwhelmed with the good information and that more workshops need to be held.

Feedback on the workshop survey from attendees was that they were overwhelmed with the good information and that more workshops need to be held. Two more veteran agricultural workshops are scheduled, Oct. 4 during the Texas AgXchange Farm and Ranch Show in Robstown and Nov. 10 during the San Antonio International Farm and Ranch Show.